Gian Lorenzo Bernini was considered a childhood genius, a prodigy that took in his father's teachings with ease and quickly surpassed his technical level.
He would develop to become one of the most significant artists of the 17th century, and left a multi-medium legacy which took in sculpture, architecture, painting and drawing. He was also highly significant as an Italian artist within the Baroque era, with this region being better known for its contributions to the earlier Renaissance.
The artist was born on the 7th of December, 1598 in the Italian city of Naples. Angelica Galante and Pietro Bernini, originally from Florence would have thirteen children, of which their son Gian Lorenzo was their sixth. They had moved to Naples by the time that he arrived in 1598.
Father Pietro would immediately encourage his son to pursue his creative side, hoping that perhaps he would follow a similar artistic path. Pietro was a talented sculptor, of the mannerist art movement. It is likely that he would have also strongly encouraged other members of his offspring, but it was Gian Lorenzo who immediately showed the most promise. Whilst understanding and supporting his son's artistic ambitions, Pietro was also able to bring practical help in the form of opportunities via some of the contacts that he had built up over his career.
Family's Relocation to Rome
The entire Bernini family would relocate to Rome after Pietro received a life-changing commission, to produce some marble work for the Cappella Paolina of Santa Maria Maggiore. At this time his son was only eight years old and it was entirely necessary to continue his training whilst completing this commission. After settling for some years in the city of Rome Pietro would feel confident enough in allowing his son to contribute to his own work (around 1615-1620).
Commission from the Pope
Gian Lorenzo's reputation would start to surpass that of his father, leading to an introduction to Pope Paul V. A successful interview, of sorts, led to the development of his own career across the next few decades. Rome was to become home, a home he would never leave, nor ever wish to. This extraordinary artistic talent now had all the resources he needed to make the most of his potential, as well as significant political support behind himself and the rest of his family.
Gian Lorenzo and his brother, Luigi, both had affairs with the married wife of a studio assistant. Despite the obvious hypocracy, the artist was furious at his lover's unfaithfulness and ordered a servant to permanently mark her face as revenge. The servant was jailed for the act, and the woman at the centre of this scandal was also imprisoned for adultery. Gian Lorenzo was able to avoid punishment due to the artistic reputation and strong connections that he had built up over the preceding decades.
Bernini was fortunate to attract the interest of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a wealthy patron who would bring many opportunities to the young artist. Between 1615 and 1625 the young sculptor would complete a number of projects for the powerful Cardinal, both in repairing parts of his existing collection, as well as producing several entirely new sculptures. The artist was now starting to forge a style within his work and depicting great emotion within his sculptured figures.
The artist was able to strengthen his political relationships within Rome so that even when existing figures passed away, such as Pope Paul V, he was already well acqainted with those who arrive in their place. He understood that to achieve success within Rome as a sculptor or architect, it was essential to build and strengthen relationships such this. The commissions he was awarded for St Peter's Basilica best exemplify this.
In the mid-1640s Pope Urban's death would coincide with a turbulent period within Bernini's career. He was not as respected by the new Pope, Pope Innocent X, and the artist was also suffering from the failure of a major project for the new bell towers for St Peter's Basilica. Significant structural problems were discovered and Bernini was initially blamed, as he was leading the project at that time. His reputation was damaged significantly, even after an investigation concluded that any mistakes were committed prior to his involvement in the commission.
Bernini struggled to attract new commissions during this period but was able to continue with projects that he had already acquired and these proved more than sufficient to keep him busy until his reputation had returned to somewhere near its previous standing. The arrival of Pope Alexander VII Chigi in the mid-1650s marked a return to prominence for Bernini, with a huge array of new constructions being commissioned in an attempt to revive the cultural standing of Rome. Bernini was given a prominent role in directing this grand plan, marking another prolific period in his career.
French influence in Rome rose during the 1660s, and Bernini was strongly encouraged to work for King Louis XIV in Paris for a short period. He reluctantly accepted this request and despite being considered by some as having the highest profile of any European artist at this point, he was still very much answerable to the ruling Papal and Monarchal figures of the time. The artist remained in the French capital for around six months and was initially greeted with near universal kindness and respect.
Their appeared to be a personality clash between King Louis XIV and his imported Italian sculptor, leading to Bernini's designs being rejected. An additional barrier proved to be cultural, with each side being suspicious of each other's architectural and artistic style. Ultimately, the trip was to prove relatively fruitless and Bernini returned home.
Bernini suffered a stroke and died on the 28th of November, 1680. He had continued to work right up until his death and never lost the passion for his craft that had been crucial to his earlier success. He was buried alongside his parents in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, which is based in central Rome. Other than the occasional trip outside the city's boundaries, most of his artistic career was spent here, making it a highly appropriate location for him to be laid to rest.
Some critics have argued that Bernini was in fact the Michelangelo of the 17th century, which makes it all the most puzzling as to why for several centuries after his own passing, Gian Lorenzo Bernini was not respected to the level that he was during his own lifetime or as he his increasingly in the present day. Part of this was due to the rejection of Baroque art more generally which came about after the rise of Neo-Classicist art, but once interest in that started to wain, so the Baroque artists of the 17th century would start to return to prominence.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.